melancholic air

I often feel like an optimist living in a world of pessimists. In other words, an ex-pat living in Paris. At first, and even second glance, Parisians do not appear a happy bunch. They rarely smile or laugh and formality is evident in their manner of speech and body language. Is this attitude contagious? Will I become more serious and less smiley in time?

What is the reason behind this seemingly grim outlook on life? Perhaps this pensive look is a facade, meant to imply depth and intelligence. The French highly value knowledge and like to question almost anything. And anyone, for that matter. This is all in high contrast to the ‘light and happy’ approach to life Americans are known to possess. (I tend to live somewhere inbetween.)

The French are lucky, given the expansive healthcare system and 35-hour work week, not to mention the haute cuisine, enchanting landscapes…I could go on. France is a country often rated number one in terms of ‘Quality of Life’. There is no reason not to feel the joie de vivre. Unless there is a secret I have not been privy to. 

Perhaps we can blame the weather for this ‘melancholic air’. It’s currently Spring and the temperature rarely exceeds 60 degrees fahrenheit. More often than not, the sky is filled with clouds releasing torrents of rain. I can sulk beneath the varying shades of gray, spend late afternoons at a local cafe plotting a protest, or debating Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s socio-political role in French affairs. Or any number of philosophical musings.

Or I can continue to search for that and those which make me smile. And simply enjoy what is. Aware that after the rain the sun will shine, and I might even catch a glimpse of a rainbow.

living a language

I have decided to take a break from studying French the traditional way (also known as taking classes), given that I can almost speak naturally in the present tense, delving occasionally into the past and future, excluding certain irregular verbs. I am doing my best to find ways to immerse myself in the culture and learn through speaking, observing, doing…in other words, learn by the act of ‘living’. So far it’s been quite a sensory adventure!

Listen. It’s interesting how much we actually do understand when we need to. I recently had my coffee read by a Turkish woman, an apparent expert in such matters. When someone is speaking to you about your life and relative ‘pursuits of happiness’ you listen! And somehow, I understood. I did have a friend with me to translate, in case I completely misunderstood my fate. It was surely an experience. Do I believe what she told me, (or what I think she told me)? That remains to be decided. What I do know is that surely this is the path that is assigned to me. But I did not need a ‘fortune teller’ to confirm that.

Watch. Since I don’t have a TV at home, and that seems to be a great way to learn French, I decided to try the French Cinema. (In my opinion one of the best in the world). My first film in French was Coco Avant Chanel. Thankfully Audrey Tautou is expressive enough to be understood without words! I was deeply moved by the scenes, by what I imagined was taking place, and as soon as the film was finished I read the history to better understand the story of this impressive woman. Was this experience a success? More or less, or less than more, but it was surely an attempt! Ironic that once upon a time I would only watch foreign (mostly French) films and now I am limited to Hollywood blockbusters, another motivation to learn French!

Read. I grew up reading the The New York Times and look forward to the day when I can read the French equivalent. Does it even exist? Meanwhile, whenever I pass a 20 Minutes journal, found in most metro stations, I pick it up, and attempt to read it. This seems to be the best way to learn a language, by understanding the literary construction. If it’s an interesting enough article, preferably about art, travel or the state of affairs in America, I will do my best to decipher this linguistic puzzle. This too is a great way to understand the people and culture, as the written word is taken quite seriously in France. Next on my reading list is Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau, my first (adult) French book….

Look. I spend a lot of time walking around the city, exploring, reading the signs on streets, in store windows… Everywhere I look I am learning, searching for words in my dictionary. To understand, for example, why the trendy Cambodian restaurant is closed on a Saturday night. ‘Partir voir la neige’ read the sign. Ah yes, the owners have ‘gone to see the snow’. (Only in France!)

Taste. This is surely a great way to learn a language, considering Paris is a gastronomic capital of the world. Taste the menu, to be certain of what you are eating, fearlessly of course. Coupled with a good glass or two of wine the conversation is sure to flow more smoothly!

Speak. As often as possible I express myself in French, rather creatively I might add, to whomever will listen. Simply leaving the house provides many opportunities in which to practice. My conversations with the woman at the local boulangerie are rather limited, as with the friendly man at the vegetable stand (though I am learning a lot about herbs!). I suspect it’s my hairdresser who notices my progress most of all. We almost speak as though we were friends, versus when I first arrived to Paris I would simply point and smile. Most of all I speak at home, with the most patient of teachers who has himself experienced what it feels like to live in a world of misunderstandings.

What great sensory experiences am I missing…

Life in Paris : Top 10

It is nearly 6 months that I am living a life of love (and miscellaneous other sentiments, depending on the day), in the most romantic city in the world, Paris! Not to mention with the most passionate of men, an Italian. (No offense to all others nationalities of the world, most of which I think very highly of, but I must be partial). 

As any ex-pat who has lived in Paris knows very well, living in a uniquely French culture is no easy task. These days the French are even asking themselves ‘What does it mean to be French?’ Hence, is there even a place for the culturally curious like myself? Being raised by a Polish mother and an American father (a Francophile I might add), I always understood and accepted culture to be a mysterious and stimulating mélange. Having grown up mostly in the USA, a country composed of immigrants, this is what I was taught is acceptable, also considering I never chose to fit in, in the first place. In hindsight, the ‘American Dream’ was never mine. (Hmmm, does a white picket fence exist in the South of France?)

Rather than begin the debate ‘Can an ex-pat ever be considered French’, or a long list of what I miss about my life in NYC (so many simple pleasures filled my 12 years…), versus the many difficulties I face in France, I will focus on what I LOVE about Paris. In an attempt to increase my awareness about this city and to miss home a little less.

My top 10, in no particular order (except for the first one):

1. Paris is for lovers and I am in Love! In NYC too, surely love can be found, but much more difficult to nurture in such a fast-paced city with so much of everything.

2. Eating is an art. Dinner is a daily ritual, an experience to savour, whether dining at home on a Monday night, at a local bistro with friends, or at a highly-rated Brasserie. 

3. The pace of life is S L O W. These days, I rarely walk with the speed of a New Yorker. As soon as the flowers begin to blossom I will take the time to smell them. ALL of them.

4. Living history. Each corner of Paris feels like stepping into the pages of a history book. Simply taking a walk, anywhere, is enchanting.

5. Simple pleasures. You can exist on a decadent (if not so balanced) diet of the finest in bread, cheese, wine and chocolate, at least for the first month. I could go on about the cheese…

6. Art fills the air. The unique and often beautiful graffiti art and murals are a pleasure to admire. Even a shopping trip to Galeries Lafayette proves a cultural experience, with a gallery exhibiting select artists and window displays to match. And the MANY revered galleries lining the left and right banks…

7. The sky. Particularly mesmerizing at dusk. (I can’t recall, was there even a sky in NYC?)

8. Time to be. Mostly due to the highly coveted 35 hour work week. The French value their free time, something I (nor anyone I know) seemed to ever have enough of in NYC. To pursue hobbies, to travel, simply to be. 

9. The Seine. Whether it be a late summer night, wrapped in warm air overlooking the Notre Dame, or a brisk walk across the Pont Neuf in the chill of winter, in the reflection of the Seine I cannot help but to smile and feel grateful.

10. The people I love most in the world will all come to visit. This is Paris after all!

The list is much longer and there remain many more Parisian delights to discover. (Please feel free to add your own.)

What is that famous saying, ‘you can take the girl out of the city…’. I will always be a New Yorker at heart, and I will never quite attain the status of a Parisian. But surely I will enjoy the experience of living in this culturally resplendent city and adding to the richness of my own unique culture.

Queen for a day

My favorite French tradition thus far is the celebration of the Epiphany on January 6th, the day when the 3 kings visited the baby Jesus. To commemorate this day, we ate a Galette des Rois, a delicate puff-pastry cake filled with a rich frangipane filling, delicious!! As part of French tradition, a small figurine is hidden in the cake and he or she who finds “la fève” in their slice becomes king or queen for a day. As luck would have it, I almost bit into a tiny ceramic rat in my first slice (not certain of the symbolism of what we consider a rodent in the USA, an insignificant detail perhaps?). I am the Queen! Rather than entertain ourselves with the traditional dance which we have yet to learn, we made a bet in which I would indeed be treated most royally. Needless to say, we have been indulging in this “king cake” every day since. Time now to take off the crown.

swimming in a sea of French…

Some days I experience what I call a ‘French block’. My mind cannot, or more accurately, does not want to think, speak nor understand anything French. It feels too much like starting over, like so many years ago when I moved to NYC and knew but one soul amidst a sea of strangers. I was young and impressionable then, and now? Still rather young and slightly less impressionable, but filled with the same eagerness to know and see and learn and meet. But here in Paris it’s much different. Most of all due to my poor comprehension of the French language and certain cultural aspects I have not yet decided whether suit me (as if I had a choice). Within this particular sea, the faces don’t smile as easily when you glance in their direction, and when looking lost or desperate, rarely will a local offer a gesture of compassion. It is those who have shared this experience, those with empathy (most often possessing a foreign passport), that help me to understand that it is in fact time and a rather liberal amount of humility that will ease this transition and allow the culture to envelop me.

I might add that a good glass of Saint Emilion in the late afternoon sun at the local bistro, can surely serve as a lifeboat.

un café s’il vous plaît

A large part of the Parisian culture involves sitting in cafés. This ‘art of café and observation’ has become one of my most revered past times, allowing me access to an interior world of secret encounters and animated conversations, and an exterior world much akin to innocent voyeurism. From a strategic yet secluded position I observe the dexterous formation of the lips when words are spoken, the vivacious gestures of the body, the smiles expressed by both eyes and lips. It is here, in the confines of a neighborhood café that the French come to life. A contradiction to the formality found in passing on the street. It is from here too, where the greatest show takes place, upon the surrounding streets. For the mere cost of a cup of coffee you can sit for hours and observe the acts of time.

Whilst sitting in cafés I have learned much about coffee, namely the variations so common to the French. A café is essentially an espresso: short, strong and sincere. A café au lait is a coffee that has been popularized in America, simply a coffee served with a separate pot of steamed milk, not so French in fact. A very common type of coffee is the café creme, a large coffee served with hot cream. Café noisette is a favorite of mine, espresso with a dash of cream. Perhaps the name particularly appeals as it technically means hazelnut, hinting at a coffee delicacy. Café leger is espresso with double the water, bringing us closer to the café Americain, simply put, filtered coffee. Less than appealing after indulging in dozens of French style cafés. A cappuccino does actually exist in Paris, though it should not. The French, much like any nation other than Italy, cannot create a proper cappuccino. Not to mention this inaccurate version of a café au lait costs upwards of 5 euros.

Needless to say, as the days pass I feel a growing urge for a large seemingly bottomless cup of coffee served in a classy paper cup marked ‘Grande Caramel Skim Latte’. Thankfully, this is found all over the world.